If you want to learn how to steer a ship, ask the people on board. They are more than ready to help you.
However, theory is good but experience is something else. Being the person on the wheel teaches you many things.
Being a helmsman can be very challenging. It’s different when you are driving a car or motorcycle.
Cars are instantaneous when applying the wheel. With enough road experience, you can calculate your moves on the road with other vehicles.
Steering a vessel is different. There are many factors involved and the “road” is unique. Its property varies from time to time.
Helmsman who are on the wheel for some time can attest to that.
Here are some tips on how to steer a ship.
1. Practice. Practice. Practice
In everything that we strive to be better of, practice makes perfect- or nearly perfect.
In fact, crew of different ranks on board started with practice called training.
So if you want to steer a ship, you have to practice first. Lots of hours.
Initially, you will be allowed to man the helm in open waters with light traffic and a responsible officer beside you.
This is level 1, the easy part.
Once you get the hang of it, difficulty increases. Of course, who likes to be stuck on the first level?
Steer during different conditions
Your driving practice will not be limited to daylight and in good weather. This is not how the sea works. Ships navigate in all weather conditions including heavy storms at sea.
Thus, your practice includes varying ship and sea states.
You will steer the vessel at night time, low visibility, strong current and bad weather. Steering in 12 knots is different when the ship is at 6 knots.
Loaded and ballast conditions? See the difference yourself.
But this is good in building up confidence.
Once you gain experience overtime, you will start to show your skill. And the Officers or veteran helmsman will notice that.
2. Focus on steering the vessel
While you are on the wheel, focus is your friend.
Focusing your energy in steering a vessel involves getting your attention into lots of details.
The sea and ship condition is one thing but you must also be attentive of something of equally important.
And that’s the Pilot’s next command. Therefore, you must be familiar with the standard helm orders.
Aside from that, you have to be aware of different indicators inside the bridge.
Rudder angles, rate of turn, speed and under keel clearance are readily available for reference.
All in your head
See? If you steer a ship, there are so many things to consider.
Knowing them gives you an overview of the forces acting on the ship. Additionally, you also have the tools to use in controlling the vessel.
All are important while steering.
Currents, wind forces, speed of the ship, her draft and rudder response are some factors you must understand.
How these things affect your ship while steering will be clearly visible if you focus enough.
Coupled with the knowledge of wheel orders, driving a vessel will be easier.
3. Learn and unlearn from your colleagues
I always try to learn from my colleagues.
With their experience, I can learn something in advance that I may use later on.
I can even copy some of their techniques, refine them and incorporate them to my own style.
Here’s an example.
Copying an experienced helmsman while he steers the vessel
When I was an Ordinary Seaman (OS), I would go to the bridge earlier so I can learn from the Able Seafarer who is on the wheel.
I am well aware that my experience is limited on a few tanker sizes even though I had steered many times already.
While he was steering the vessel, I noticed he would give huge rudder angles. I was interested on that part since I’m hesitant in doing that especially in loaded condition.
The next scenario surprised me.
He managed to stop the vessel’s swing like a boss almost instantly. The Pilot was just cool with it.
4. Play scenarios in your head
In order to quickly learn how to steer a ship like a pro, its very helpful to play steering scenarios in your head.
We know that there are times we make mistakes while on the wheel. Some of them are glaring while others are minor ones easily forgotten.
But if you truly want to be a better helmsman, you should exert extra effort into it.
As part of their training, boxing fighters use a technique called “shadow boxing” where they fight an imaginary opponent.
You can apply similar as this but with a wheel of course.
Imagine yourself steering the vessel.
Feel the steering wheel in your hand. Hear the harbor Pilot’s orders. Watch the vessel turn as you apply rudder angles.
Play different scenarios and watch your response to them. This will help you become better the next time you steer a ship.
5. Review your steering techniques and improve them
Another method to improve your steering technique is to review them.
Sometimes, we make mistakes while steering. But we don’t dig into the details as to why.
Going over our own steering practices may help us discover some flaw to it. We may see something to improve them.
Calling upon all your past experiences and studying them may help us remember useful lessons buried in the past.
These same lessons could have prevented us in making those little mistakes while steering the vessel.
6. Share your experience
One of the best way to learn on board is to teach the next generations.
And this is true for steering.
As helmsmen, we have our own understanding on how the ship works and the best way to steer them. This is true for me, too.
However, teaching these things to the younger generations provide another angle that I never even saw of.
Sometimes, they ask “out-of-the-box” questions. This gets me thinking a lot. It provided me with new insights I could not find on my own.
If you want to become a better helmsman and steer a vessel safely, teach the young ones the ways of the wheel.
7. Rinse and repeat
Repetition is the mother of learning.
Now that you have the process on how to become a better helmsman, next method is to repeat them from time to time.
But of course, these steering tips are not limited to this post. I’m only sharing my ways of doing it.
Rinsing means refining them to be better.
But you don’t have to do this all the time.
As you go into your career, a little visit into these lists will help you a lot.
Hope you find your knowledge to safely steer a ship.
May the winds be in your favor.